Stuff you need
This may surprise some, but the instrument itself may actually be superfluous depending on what you play. For those who sing, your voice is rather more transportable as an instrument than, say, an organ.
If you play something like the guitar, you’ll find that many people you encounter while traveling will have some old, beaten-up nylon string hidden away in a closet.
If you’re space-poor luggage-wise, why not roll the dice and assume that someone else has taken the trouble to being their acoustic, and hijack it when they start slurring the third verse of “Livin’ On a Prayer”?
Be smart; if you’re planning on couchsurfing in Ireland, you’re bound to come across a fiddle at numerous points. If you’re backpacking through the Laos highlands, however, you may want to consider bringing your own. Especially if you’re a little in love with the tone/design/sound of your instrument.
If you do decide you can’t leave your “other baby” at home to gather dust, consider any alternatives to the full-size, heavy-as double bass you’ve got (see “awkwardly large instruments”, below).
Banish the thought of buying a soft case to save some dough. Even if your instrument is small enough to carry on to the plane, a couple of centimeters of foam ain’t gonna protect your 18th century Stradivarius against the New York subway crowds.
Hard cases may be heavier, but the protection they provide compensate for the biceps they tone.
Essential. Simple as that. Except if you play the drums; and even then it may come in handy.
Chromatic tuners are best because they can tune to any note, rather than specifically the ones on your instrument (assuming you know your instrument well enough to identify what notes you need to tune to).
Sure, online “tuners” are easy enough to find if you happen to have a connected computer on hand, but having a quick, easy-to-use portable tuner to pull out of your case when the campfire’s roaring is indispensable.
And there’s nothing worse than everyone getting fired up for a tune, only to delay the fun by spending 20 minutes tuning up without one. Don’t spend too much on this – I usually lose mine going from house-to-car, never mind continent-to-continent.
The Korg CA-30 Chromatic Tuner is a solid, reliable and cheap model that will serve most musicians.
Capos, bows, slides, reeds, peg tuners, strings, sticks all fall under this category. The little things that are often essential when it comes to playing your specific instrument.
Even if you know the songs off-by-heart, lyrics with some chords scrawled on top are enough for others to join in if they want to/can. At least know the key of each song, in case someone’s lurking nearby with sweet harmonica skills.
Essential for scribbling down any lyrical or musical inspiration that may hit during your wanders.
Get one with a stave or tab lines if they apply to your instrument (if those two terms mean nothing to you, ignore that suggestion).
Keep an open ear out for local melodies and see if they don’t infiltrate your own musical sensibility.
Travel is such a rich experience that it’s bound to have an immediate impact on any creative pursuit.
Stuff you can do without
Unless you’re a retro-electro-punk outfit from Australia trying to break the US market, it’s just not worth bringing any other noisemaking equipment.
What possible use does a backpacker have for a keytar anyway?
Forget it. If you can’t make the songs sound good using a run-down scratched-up acoustic round a campfire, no amount of reverb and echo is going to fix it.
Awkwardly large instruments
Even if your overbearing parents got you a Steinway & Sons piano when you were four, it stays.
Find an alternative, like a “portable piano” (thus breaking the “no electronic instruments” recommendation), or a melodica which garners bonus individuality points.
If you play bass sax, take an alto instead. If you play the drums, just bring one. If you play guitar, how about a half-size? Or a ukulele? Just know you’ll never be able to replicate your home playing experience while on the road; and, heck! – that’s kind of the point.
Looking for more packing lists? Check out Matador’s Packing Tips focus page on packing for various travel scenarios.